Moffet Arab Arts Program: Behind The Scenes

At this December’s Holiday Concert at Moffett Elementary, the students in Al-Bustan’s Moffet Arab Arts Program showed off all their hard work from the Fall semester.

The concert was a tremendous example of what children can achieve through the arts. Even a day makes a difference, but sustained engagement can produce incredible results. Some of the drawings were accomplished in only a class or two; the beginning drummers learned an impressive array of rhythms and techniques in just three months; and the returning students’ performance was the product of several years of hard work.

It’s impossible to convey everything that makes this program special in one short concert, so I want to try to add depth to these brief performances by highlighting a few moments that crystallize the Moffet Arab Arts Program.



What the drummers focus on most of all is teamwork. Percussion teacher Hafez Kotain emphasizes this all the time: teamwork is a musical exercise, listening to everyone else in order to stay in sync, but teamwork is also about trying your best and practicing diligently. Hard work doesn’t just benefit the individual but the whole ensemble. During the concert, the drummers demonstrated this perfectly, playing with a remarkable quality of togetherness.

At the same time, Hafez recognized one student with a solo during the concert, fifth-grader Ahmad. I didn’t interview Hafez for this post, so I can only guess the reasons behind his decision, but I am fairly certain Ahmad was chosen first for his hard work — his attendance record is impeccable, he takes every opportunity to practice, and he always volunteers to help Hafez set up. Another reason is Ahmad’s technique, which is evidence of his dedication: his notes ring sharp and clear and his playing is steady, even when the rhythm is fast. Finally, Ahmad really enjoys drumming, which is crucial. Joy is an underrated part of music or art, but every day that I work at Moffet, I see how important it is. Ahmad’s solo would not have been possible without joy.



I like the way Serge El-Helou, our choir teacher, starts class with the beginner students. Once they’ve warmed up their voices, Serge leads Moffet singers through a musical greeting. “Marhaba, marhaba, marhaba,” they sing (“marhaba” means hello in Arabic), then a student introduces themself in song: “my name is Nader, Nader is my name.” Everyone greets Nader with “marhaba” again, and this repeats until everyone has had a turn announcing their presence to the class.

I like the tone that this sets in creating the group as a social and musical unit. It’s a friendly gesture that makes space for everyone’s voice as an individual, which also strengthens the group: in order to sing well with others, you must be in touch with your own voice, but also with everyone else’s.

As a listener, I appreciate the chance to hear each child. There are many sounds and noises I’m exposed to during the program, most of which are good, or at least interesting. Singing, on the other hand, is rare, so I consider the “marhaba” song a special moment. Just as everyone brings something unique to the program, every voice adds to the communal sound of the choir.



For art class one day, we took cameras outside and photographed each other. This was the kids’ favorite day because they got to run around for an hour straight. It was like recess, but longer, and everyone got to play photojournalist. I think they were energized by their freedom, but also by the immediacy of creating an image on a digital camera, a permanent image you can see just as soon as the moment is gone.

Before we started, I was afraid that the ubiquity of smartphones with cameras would diminish their novelty, blunt the excitement the children might have felt. Happily, I was mistaken. Maybe camera phones have a fainter presence in children’s lives than I thought. Maybe what was exhilarating to them was the fact that they were all taking photos together, in the open, at the same time. Groups formed to pose for a portrait, then dissolved. A lone photographer captured her subject, then arranged herself to be photographed in turn. Often, two kids would face each other down with their cameras, seeing in the screens mirror images of themselves.

At the beginning, I sat back, observing. I saw their energy, movement, and instability. Then I joined in, first as subject (photographing the teacher was, I think, a thrilling transgression), then as fellow photographer, pulling out my phone to try to document the chaos, trying to keep up.



— Elias Bartholomew, Programs Coordinator


Drawing Trees and Roots


Oxford Tree - Ibrahim El Salahi

Oxford Tree, 2001 – Ibrahim El Salahi

Over the past few months, I’ve become enmeshed into the cohort of young artists in the Moffet Arab Arts Program. We begin every Wednesday with snacks and homework and the ideas in the kids’ heads are already apparent through the chaos of doodles and procrastinations from their assignments. Before this energy explodes we move downstairs to the auditorium for class.

Briefly, a bit about myself — I am Palestinian-American and in my final year of undergrad at Temple University where I study History, Arabic, Art (focusing on photography and bookbinding), and I am a member of Students for Justice in Palestine, the Student-Farmworker Alliance, as well as working with city-wide community organizations (mostly on Palestine and anti-gentrification related causes). I live just a few blocks from Moffett Elementary where I work as an assistant with Al-Bustan’s art class.

Back to the auditorium — here are the twenty students in our class. Most of them are in second, third, or fourth grade, but there is a first grader and fifth grader as well. This variation in ages has been one of the most incredible things about working with the Moffett Arab Arts Program this fall. The difference in perspective and worldview between the youngest and oldest students in the class is huge, and it leads to some great interactions and sharing of ideas and skills. During the free draw period we usually start class with, students often call me over to ask, “How do I draw this?” seemingly expecting a straightforward answer. With just the slightest push in that direction from me, the students start to break down the issue together, exploring shape and line and bridging the page, their hand, and their mind.


Cash and Yoel

Cash (left) and Yoel (right) compare photos

A few weeks ago we began working on a tree-drawing project based on the work of Sudanese artist Ibrahim el Salahi. Drawing from observation did not come easy for most of the students, but seeing the students apply our practice with visual problem-solving filled me with pride.

Ibrahim el Salahi’s work, which I was not familiar with before being introduced, along with the students, by Ms. Lisa Volta in class one Wednesday, comes out of the hurufiyya movement of the mid-20th century. Reclaiming traditional Arabic and Islamic calligraphic forms in a modernist and abstracted context, Salahi’s portraits of trees are incredibly compelling works of design. When we looked at some of Salahi’s images in class, I watched as one-by-one the students starting putting together how the shapes and lines and colors they were seeing are also real expression of a tree. This project was the first time that I saw some students consciously try to make their drawing look like the trees outside the school we were looking at as opposed to whatever ideal image of a tree they have in mind and intentionally abstract their own work.

Isabela Tree

A tree drawn by 3rd-grader Isabela

El Salahi isn’t the only artist from the hurufiyya movement that we’ve looked to for inspiration in class. We started the year looking at the work of Dia Azzawi for a project that involved painting on silk. We prompted the students to think of something that happened to them, their family, or their neighborhood and draw that scene in whatever way felt right. Walking among and asking the students about their work, I was stunned by the intensity and candidness of their stories. One student drew an armored vehicle circling her family’s block back home in Palestine (“In my country, there’s this army…” is how she started the story). Another told us about the death of his great-grandfather who he had never known because he died in 1977. His story entered our classroom as the student wondered if he and his great grandfather would have been friends. It’s the nonchalance that is most interesting about these moments. Deaths, births, military occupation; these are all things that we learn to talk about in a certain, expected way that young children can subvert without thinking.

I’ve been using “we” to talk about this class with complete intention. Whether teaching a student how to write her name in Arabic or breaking down how to draw from observation or going home after work on Wednesday and spending an hour by myself looking up artworks by Dia Azzawi or Ibrahim el Salahi, I’ve been a part of this experience as teacher and learner. It makes me wonder how I might have found the path I am on now sooner if I had been exposed to a program like this when I was seven years old. I only started to dig deeply into my Palestinian roots in high school, and since then I’ve begun learning Arabic, organizing for Palestinian rights, and diving into the music and art that Al-Bustan has brought to Moffett Elementary, and to me.

You can find more of my writing and thoughts at

— Jasper Saah, Temple ’19, Art Assistant


Jasper helps Moffet students

“I Sing Because I’m Happy”

Philadelphia is an amazing city: historic, rich in the arts, and incredibly diverse. I am proud to call it my home. I don’t always take full advantage of it, however. Life has a rhythm, which means that I usually eat the same foods, drive on the same roads, and watch the same sports teams lose and occasionally win.

This summer was different. For four weeks, I had the opportunity to work with children from all over the world, making music, learning Chinese songs, and discovering that, in Portuguese, the word for “dodgeball” is “queimada” which means “burned!” I felt lucky to have this job, and I think this blog will explain why.

This July, I worked as the assistant to music teacher Javvieaus Stewart at Gilbert Spruance Elementary in Oxford Circle, where Al-Bustan provided arts classes to students in the School District’s program for English-language learners entering sixth through eighth grade.

These children had migrated to the US recently, from all over the world, so while there were groups who shared a language or national background, as a class we had little in common besides the classroom we occupied and the mission to make music. Javvieaus’ and my challenge, as educators, was to create a group out of these individuals.

We did this by making music together, in particular music that empowered children to share knowledge of their own language and culture with the class. Miss Javvieaus, as the kids called her, chose songs from different traditions so that we could do both things at once: make music and share. Students who spoke the language of a certain song could demonstrate their knowledge by helping us pronounce and understand the words, and everyone could come together to make the words into music. We hoped to create a space for the children to connect over both similarities and differences.

We sang songs in English, Spanish, Arabic, and Chinese. Each time we introduced a new piece, students who knew its language would perk up, engaging visibly with the words. For those of us who didn’t speak it, volunteers translated. “Who can tell me what ‘Ya Leil’ means?” Miss Javvieaus would ask, and hands would shoot up. “It means ‘the night’ in Arabic!” Sometimes we received help without even asking for it. For example, students blurted out corrections of my Spanish every time I mispronounced something.

We also used our students’ language skills to deepen their understanding of the music. As we were rehearsing “Ya Leil” for our performance on the final day of the program, the students’ singing became loud and unfocused. So I asked the students what “Ya Leil” meant. “The night, of course,” they answered. “For you, is the night loud and wild? Or is it quiet and beautiful?” “Quiet and beautiful.” “Okay, so when we sing about the night, keep the image of the night in your head.” Their sound immediately changed for the better. By allowing the students to use their own knowledge of Arabic, we brought them into a conversation about the music, rather than simply issuing directions.

Miss Javvieaus’s choice to perform songs in different languages encouraged those students to invest in our mission to make music together. But our repertoire did not represent every language present in the classroom. Some kids didn’t get to show off knowledge of their native language. Still, the act of bringing the music to life gave every student a chance to express themself.

In fact, the most popular song did not come from any of the students’ traditions. Their favorite piece was, by a large margin, “I Sing Because I’m Happy,” a gospel hymn from Javvieaus Stewart’s own musical background. It’s a lively, high-tempo declaration of joy: “I sing because I’m happy / I sing because I’m free / His eye is on the sparrow / And I know He watches me.” The song’s syncopated beat (where the accent comes earlier or later than you would expect) created a certain energy as soon as Miss Javvieaus called the lyrics out for the singers to repeat. They started moving, quickly embodying the rhythm’s dynamic tension and eager to hear the melody, which we covered next. These kids were quick learners.

Typically, after a choir learns a song’s rhythm, melody, and lyrics and then puts it all together, there is a certain amount of work to do in order to make the music come alive – basically, you switch from trying to make the song sound right to trying to make the song sound beautiful. No such process was necessary for “I Sing Because I’m Happy.” Intuitively, the students brought the hymn to life, their smiles, movement, and sound showing everyone that they really were happy. In fact, they got so excited while singing that Miss Javvieaus often had to calm them down and focus their energy.

Looking back, I’m not surprised that this song resonated with the kids. In my own experience as a singer in high school and college, gospel music has had a unique power to move both the singers and the audience. At my concerts, people would often find themselves clapping along to the music, and gospel songs always got the biggest round of applause.

The audience’s response to gospel reflects my own response as a singer: the feeling of singing gospel is very natural and personal. Something about the music empowers me to express joy using my own voice. At the same time, hearing your own voice resonate with the voices of other singers in this way is an electric experience, one that I have been fortunate to share on a few occasions in my life. So when we began working on “I Sing Because I’m Happy,” I instantly recognized the students’ reaction. Listening to the children, I was jealous I couldn’t sing along.

Choral music is both a personal and a collective form of expression. This makes it challenging to produce. Unlike other instruments, which can be manufactured to be almost identical, each singer’s instrument, their voice, is unique. Because of this, creating a unified sound can be quite difficult. Singers need to concentrate on what their own body is doing while listening closely to everyone else. Togetherness can be difficult to achieve, but it’s incredibly rewarding.

I was satisfied to see – and hear – that “I Sing Because I’m Happy” brought the class together. Not only were the kids making music, but they were having fun with each other. They spoke Portuguese, Russian, Pashto, Arabic, Vietnamese, Haitian Creole, Turkish, Spanish, Chinese. Communication in English was difficult. But, for a moment, they sang with one voice. What brought them together was, I hope, a communal joy in sharing a new musical experience with each other.

Between Home and School



The author with percussion teacher Hafez Kotain and their class.

When I was a student at Gilbert Spruance Elementary School, I never had a teacher who looked like me. I never had teachers who didn’t speak English as a first language, and until entering the Mentally Gifted program (which no longer exists) I was never taught that me or my art were valuable. By hand picking talented artists and empathetic staff to teach this program, Al-Bustan gave these kids something I wish I had had. My Syrian students were thrilled to know that we spoke their language and understood where they were coming from. My Spanish speaking students didn’t want to leave our class because Hafez translated everything he said in order to reinforce what they were learning. Being multilingual meant being sassed and inspired in many tongues.

I often talk about being the representation I want to see in the world. Because of Al-Bustan, I found myself teaching what felt like a class of me. I had young hijab wearing students tell me that they wanted to match with me. Several boys played the games I grew up with, but in their own words. Me and a group of Arab girls looked for gelatin in our fruit snacks. Two Sudanese kids said they saw a piece of home in me. And I understand this transition. I understand their journeys because I went through them. I know what it is to learn a language that doesn’t fit right. Some of these kids have gone through what I’ve gone through, some worse. I hope that art and writing does for them what it still does for me. I hope they find the healing in it that I did. I hope it teaches them about themselves. I hope other kids get this opportunity.

When I was a student at Spruance, I didn’t have the language to explain what I was going through. I was born in Sanaa, Yemen because my family fled the conflict in Sudan. In Sanaa, and during my first visit to Darfur, I was exposed to war and cruelty that I did not understand. Not long after staring down a barrel of a gun, and watching my uncles carry our wounded neighbors home, and seeing my family wash blood out of their clothing with the same water we used to make tea, I was expected to be a good student in a classroom in Philadelphia. I became frustrated with myself when I couldn’t focus in class and couldn’t motivate myself to do schoolwork. I didn’t know I was traumatized because I didn’t know what trauma meant. I didn’t know I needed help, because I was never offered it.

When I was a student, even my compassionate teachers did not know how to accommodate students like me. Even then, I was not the only student going through something like what I was going through. Although everybody has a unique experience, there will always be students like me. I was struggling with English, and the war, and my family, and homework. Although I needed help beyond what a school could offer, I know I would have had an exponentially better experience if I had a program like Al-Bustan’s. This program was not perfect, and often, hot as hell. Even so, I know that I would have benefited from it. If I was introduced to art, music, performance, and creative writing early on, I would have been able to at least begin the process of working through my experience. If I had teachers who spoke Arabic, or at least understood the support that students who speak English as a second language really need, I wouldn’t have felt as anxious as I was in the classroom.

Kids need art because I did. Kids need representation because I still do. Kids need to learn how to express themselves because we all do. Everyone needs to know that their culture is valued. Everybody needs to know that their feelings and experiences are valid. For most of my life, including now, I’ve found myself struggling to work through the bad things and amplify the good. I’m an optimist when it comes to education reform, but only because I’ve seen what is possible when dedicated educators are given the resources they need in order to make the impact their students need from them. I’m an idealist because I’ve been a student, and a teacher, and I’m still affected by what I’ve learned from some of the students and teachers in my life.

When Hazami, the founder of Al-Bustan, first asked me to be a part of this program, I didn’t realize where it would take place or who would be a part of it. All of my students were immigrants, or children of immigrants. All of my students spoke a language beside English at home. In this political climate, I can’t stress how important it is that programs like this continue to take place. Although we didn’t talk about politics in my classroom, even the existence of a class like ours could be considered political. There are still states who push to have “English Only” curriculum enforced in schools. There are still states who believe culture and identity should not be discussed in classrooms. There are still people who believe that me, and my students, do not belong in this country.

I’m grateful my family ended up in Philadelphia. This city has made me feel more welcome than any other in the States. However, I have still been made to feel unwelcome here and everywhere. Philly is where I remember being called my first racial slur, and Spruance is where I first remember being taught to hate my name and the color of my skin. As I write this, I think of how my students struggle with English the same way I did. I think of how far I’ve come even after being told I couldn’t. I don’t want my students to have the same experiences that I did, but I want them to feel the same joy that I do sometimes.

I’m still trying to understand what this month at Spruance means for me, but I hope it means just as much for my kids. I hope they’ll go back to this school and have the visceral reaction I did. I hope they stay in touch. I hope they keep playing music. I hope they write all the poems they need to. I hope they look back on this experience and think of ways to improve it. I hope they’re having a good day. I hope I was the teacher they needed. I hope they become the teachers that they needed.

Afaq Mahmoud | Poetry Teacher and Percussion Teaching Assistant


A Place to Start; Telling Stories at the Gilbert Spruance Summer School

E EducationBy Yannick Trapman-O’Brien, Freelance Collaborator with Al-Bustan

For nine months, I served as project assistant for An Immigrant Alphabet, a photo installation created by a group of Northeast High School Students, in collaboration with the photographer Wendy Ewald. In those seasons of standing outside, gazing up at the artwork, I had plenty of chances to admire the product of this collaboration. But when I assisted Al-Bustan in producing Ewald’s workshop, Snapshots of Identity, I was reminded of how clear, potent and powerful Ewald’s process was as well. Ewald and the students were able to take the broad, complicated, emotional and deeply personal topic of immigration and explore it together by giving themselves a clear, direct, and achievable set of guidelines and questions: what words belong in an Immigrant Alphabet? How do we represent them?

When I received the invitation to teach Drama in Al-Bustan’s four-week arts enrichment program with the School District of Philadelphia, I knew that teaching Structure would be key — not as the end point of the class, but as a tool. My goal was to build a class with my students where we could feel comfortable creating and sharing stories together, and each practice shaping our ideas, memories, identities and imaginations into content.

We began with games. Some were tailor-made to our purposes; in “2 truths and a lie,” we practiced making introductions and sharing two real facts about ourselves, and one lie, which the audience tried to guess. This became a way for us to talk about how we choose to present ourselves, and how we are perceived. But even with games that were quite simple at base, like playing catch or tag, we found ways to use them as a structure to learn about each other: “what do we like to do outside of school? what languages do we speak? what foods are our favorites? where do we come from?” Similarly, any game with two opposing sides became an opportunity to imagine new stories: “why are these people fighting? what do they want from each other?” At the same time, we began practicing our theatre basics: warming up our voices and bodies each morning, practicing our diction and projection, and learning stage directions.

Blog Picture 1 - stage directions
Signs for a musical-chairs style game we played to review the parts of the stage. You may know which way is up, but do you know where upstage is?

As the games grew more complex, the backstories the students wrote expanded. Opposing teams became warring kingdoms, battles between ice and fire, or friends who had been betrayed and hurt. We began filling the stage with scenes and pictures. Students would share what they had done over the weekend, and then we’d challenge each other to act it out: “who can show me a barbecue, stage right?” “soccer in the park, upstage?” “getting a pet hamster, downstage left?” With so many languages in the room, we practiced acting out activities and scenes with no words, using just our bodies and our acting to see how we could help our audience know what was going on.

I started to call the students attention to one of the most common and powerful structures for storytelling: a Beginning, Middle, and End. We are introduced to a world, something changes, and we see the effect.  We practiced inventing these simple stories together, one word at a time, and then one sentence. The students quickly seized this concept and ran ahead of me. Some turned simple pantomimes into epic tales, groups of 5 or 6 students quickly hashing out the story in our “backstage” behind the chalkboard before unfolding it to the whole class, with sound effects and plot twists. Others wrote out their stories, translating into English and other languages so that other students could read as well.

The Mountain CaseLa Casa de Las Montanas small

This student wrote his original story in Portuguese, then translated it into English and Spanish, so that two students could narrate while he and six others acted out the scenes. He came up with the idea of color coding his beginning, middle, and end, so that the translators could more easily follow each other.

We talked about the elements of stories: Narration, Emotion, and Details. As we became familiar with the concepts, we worked together to identify and demand more of each in every story we told ( including the memorable tactic of one student holding up a giant ‘E’ on paper and shouting “more emotion!”)

By this time, in their morning literacy classes, students were being challenged to think in linear progressions as well, drawing “timelines” of their lives on large sheets of poster paper. I came in to set up my classroom one afternoon and found the walls covered with milestones— “born; came to America; brother born; got a dog!” — all neatly sorted with tick marks over timelines. “That would be a great tool for our stories!” I thought to myself, and we began documenting each new story we made, as a way of practicing making clear narrative points and as a means of “saving” stories to be told again later.
La Guerra smallStuck in the Bathroom! small

Outlines for two stories: one in which a series of combatants gain and lose control, trapped in the cycle of violence of an ongoing war, and another in which a middle schooler gets trapped in a bathroom stall. Ours was a diverse repertoire.

These outlines were not scripts so much as notes to self, and they often left much to still be created, as several students shared with me after the presentation of one of their stories. It was a “zombie apocalypse” story, complete with dramatic escapes, noble sacrifices, and plenty of action (“it looks so real!” whispered Harrison from the audience, as Ashley mimed fighting back the zombie horde). As I led the class in a discussion of what we had seen, one of the performers interjected: “Teacher, we didn’t even really plan everything,” they admitted, laughing. “We, uh— how do you say—? We improvised!”

I applauded them on their quality “improvising” (like Harrison, I had been impressed by the performances), and brought their attention to how outlining a structure had made that possible; by defining a beginning middle and end together, the students could simply play, confident they were telling the same story, and that we as an audience knew how to receive it.

Towards the end of our time together, I wanted to be sure to show students that Beginnings, Middles, and Ends aren’t the only possible structures for art. For this, I found the best case study was a familiar piece: An Immigrant Alphabet.


The students were able to easily relate to the work — and not only because of its clear structure, A to Z. As I explained that the work was made by students from Northeast High School, J. called out; “my sister goes there!” And later, as students examined the cards — “that’s my sister’s friend!” “I know her!” Together, we saw how, even without a traditional linear progression, the North East High School students still managed to convey Narrative, Emotion, and Detail: someone stepping away, in L for “Leave;” faces in portraits in H for “Happy” and U for “Upset;” all the personal belongings that fill each photo in the series.

By the end of the course, the students had really begun to internalize these creative processes and structures. With one group we played a closing game where we shared things we wanted to do in the future: “to be a doctor,” “to be a teacher,” “to have a good job and family,” “to be rich with lots of money!” Students were full of ideas, which led to push back from others: “Tío, João said two things! He already said one!” We made a discussion of it — “well, sometimes we want more than one thing, right?”—and then we made it a game. We sat in a circle and starting acting out combined futures: “who can show me what a doctor looks like? What about a teacher? What about doctor teachers?” I wanted us to have a chance to be silly together, and the students jumped right in, literally, with Wilder flopping to the ground so that Ashley could give him rounds of alternating defibrillation and math tutoring. I tried my best to keep up, calling out professions and futures to combine: “You’re architects! You’re designing a video game console! You’re cops! You’re wealthy! You’re cops with lots of money!”

It didn’t take long for me to fall behind. “You’re police detectives! You’re .. uh …” Ashley jumped in, pointing to Joseph and giving directions in Spanish which for the life of me made no sense at all. “Who can translate?” I offered — by this point a very familiar refrain. Valerie stepped in, but it didn’t help much; “he, uh, he didn’t kill anyone.” I stammered – “Wait, Joseph killed someone?” “No!” Ashley explained, dragging me along “no he didn’t do it!” I was still lost, but the students leapt ahead. A dead body. A crime scene. “Jorge, you wanted to be a cop, right?” And so Joseph was arrested. Ashley wants to grow up to be a police detective, so the crime scene investigation began, complete with photographer and on-the-spot autopsy. “Nelson, abogado, no?” So now Joseph had a defense attorney. They took the case to court, justice João presiding with a rolled up magazine gavel. It was a nail-biter, hinging heavily on fingerprints and ballistic evidence: a major twist, Joseph wasn’t the killer at all, it was the child’s mother! Justice João insisted on reviewing all of the evidence, and numerous photographs (a lot of frenzied, confident pantomiming), and then the gavel came down. GUIILTY!

As justice took its swift and winding course, I threw in a suggestion or question or two, sometimes trying to guide them through, mostly just trying to keep up. They played out scenes in pantomime, in gibberish, in Spanish and English, switching constantly, Valerie valiantly translating whatever snippets she could. They leapt in and out of scenes, built sets, and pulled each other in — most of them playing out professions they wanted to grow into. It was Law and Order: Special Children’s Unit. As I watched, I was proud to see the students embody everything I had hoped for in the course. They were creating and sharing with each other, on the fly, improvising across languages and friend groups. They were playwrights, and actors, and an ensemble. Later, we would select some of the stories we had made together to share with other classes—but this moment for me was the crowning achievement for the students. They didn’t need prompts anymore; they knew enough about structure to find and invent it on their own. The tools were theirs now; all they needed was for me to get out of the way.


Reflections on Al-Bustan Camp by Hannah Erdogan

Marhaba! My name is Hannah Erdogan, and I will be beginning my college career at the University of Pennsylvania this fall majoring in Middle Eastern Studies and Pre-Medicine. I have attended Al-Bustan Summer Camp since I was six years old, and I have grown to love the diverse and all-accepting community that Al-Bustan Camp fosters within its program.

This summer, I am returning for my third year as a counselor, this year as the Group Leader for campers aged Kindergarten to Second Grade, otherwise known as Group Lu’Lu’–Arabic for Pearls. Throughout these two weeks, I have had flashbacks to my many summers spent learning about the Arabic language, culture, and arts at Al-Bustan Camp.

The first morning started off with some hesitant goodbyes for the young campers; from what I came to learn, many of these campers travel long distances before arriving at the playground in front of Friends Select School in Center City.

After drop-off, many parents may never fully understand what goes on in the second floor of this school building. I hope to shine some light on some of these enriching experiences that may not make it home.

The first day got off to an energetic start and all reservations flew out the door when Mr. Hafez greeted the class with a loud “Sabah al-khayr” and placed a tabla–Arabic drum–in each of the campers’ miniature laps; their wide-eyed expressions were as if each child had been handed the power of the world. The campers quickly picked up on the dum, tak, and tika, eager to experiment to make any possible sound on this seemingly magical tool. As I sit cross-legged next to five year old camper Leyla, I am reminded of my own raw excitement but also of my struggle and awkwardness in playing an instrument almost as large as myself. What’s different now, though, besides my stature, is that from the counselor’s perspective I see how Mr. Hafez’s musical pedagogy not only introduces traditional Arab beats but also teaches respect, patience, and teamwork to create the challenging and complex rhythmic piece to be presented at Friday evening’s performance.

With Arabic drumming mastered, we move on in our camp day to learn about the theme of this summer’s camp: Souks of the Silk Route. The spectacular “Miss Lisa” is the glue that holds this camp together. As the teacher for our science and art classes, Miss Lisa skillfully weaves the Silk Road into each and every activity (she actually led all of the campers through a weaving project!) One of my favorite class activities of hers was during science class on the first day of camp. It takes a special kind of teacher to be able to get across to rising kindergarten, first, and second graders the elaborate meaning and history of the Silk Road; however, after a short introduction with maps and images, Miss Lisa perfectly demonstrated the crux of the theme: trade. With each table representing the countries China, Turkey, India, and Uzbekistan and stocked with index cards labeled with commodities and corresponding point values, such as “1 Unit of Oil: 5 Points,” the campers were instructed to strategically trade their “goods” with other countries’ “goods.” I silently observed as the youngest campers tried to make deals with each other: two units of coffee is definitely a good deal for one unit of gold! Miss Lisa called the closure of the market, followed by an exciting tallying of points, after fluctuating the goods’ point values based on changes in supply and demand along our imaginary silk road. I was amazed by these young campers’ engagement and their understanding of the building blocks of modern economics!

After several mornings of Arabic immersion instruction with Ustadah Farnaz, the turning point in their language acquisition came Wednesday morning. As the campers dawned their fez, bangles, and abayas and entered the makeshift souk (a large white tent decorated with Egyptian fabrics and stocked with food and jewelry) with their individual kees (coin bags) in hand, they transformed into Middle Eastern merchants from 600 years ago. The campers swiftly utilized their new Arabic vocabulary of bekam hatha (how much money is this) to purchase goods including melh (salt), ‘asl (honey), and lu’ lu’ (pearls) by counting their gold coins in Arabic. I was so proud to watch my young campers, especially those who are not of Arab heritage, as their spoken Arabic skills blossomed in front of my eyes just after a week of instruction.

Over the past two weeks, I have witnessed the silk route theme of this summer’s camp truly come to life with the exchange of culture and friendship between campers of all ages. I cannot wait to see all of the campers’ hard work pay off as they fearlessly unleash their artistic talents on the stage of Friends Select School Friday evening!

Hannah Erdogan – Camp Counselor

Speed Interviews with Moffet’s Little Leaders: Ghadeer, Mastermind & Go-getter

This is our last interview for 2017-18! I hope you enjoyed the weird journey that is the after-school program. I finally had a few seconds to touch base with Ghadeer, a second grader who likes to pretend she is evil but is actually very sweet, especially with her little brother. She’s incredibly smart and funny, check out our conversation:



Ghadeer all psyched for summer!


Today is the last day of the program. How do you feel?
I mean I like the program but I get out at 5 and I can’t go to the mall!


You don’t feel sad at all?
… I will miss y’all.


What did you think you did best in the program?
Drumming. I beat everyone.


There are no winners in drumming! What do you mean?
I won. I won the whole semester. And the year.


Okay… Are you excited for the summer?




Anything cool you’re doing?
I’m going to Paris, London, Florida and South Carolina!


What are your dreams? 
To help animals. First, I was gonna be a model. Then, a doctor. THEN, I was going to be an astronaut but you can die from that so I’m good.


Right. Any last words you want to say to me?
Um. Have a good summer.


This concludes my speed interviews with the students of the Moffet Arab Arts After-School Program 2017-18! I hope you enjoyed reading these as much as I loved writing them. These students were so fun to work with.

Have a great summer! See you back in the fall for a whole new round of student leader interviews.


– Soumya Dhulekar,  Programs Coordinator